Being a Better Writer: Rules – When, How, and Why You Break Them

Hello readers! Welcome back!

I’ve got news! A couple bits of news actually! First and foremost: I have just received my Covid-19 immunization shot. I got the Johnson & Johnson one, and yes, my arm is sore! Already! Which is par for the course as I understand it, and next comes fatigue, and maybe nausea and a headache.

Still, beats dying of Covid. And as a bonus, my cell-phone reception has improved! Now if I could just get rid of the flashing message in the corner of my vision …

I kid. Just in case you’re one of the few people that’s actually been believing that microchip thing. Though if you do believe it, be sure to post about it from your iPhone! No chance at all of anyone tracking you through that always connected device that reports your every move!

Stepping away from sarcasm, for those that haven’t looked, late late Saturday (I had a busy day) there was an update for Patreon supporters over on said site. It was, in fact, a supporter reward, a chunk of a story called A Trial for a Dragon!

This story, as some Alpha and Beta Readers already know, is set in the same setting as Axtara – Banking and Finance and A Game of Stakes. In fact, it follows a character already mentioned in one of those stories: Ryax, Axtara’s older brother!

This story is as of yet unpublished, so if you’re one of the Patreon Supporters that keeps the lights on, head on over to the Patreon Page and meet Axtara’s older sibling! Who has challenges of his own he’s about to tackle! And if you’re not a supporter yet, well then there’s always a time to start! Supporting helps keep Being a Better Writer coming free of charge and without ads for all to enjoy.

Plus you do get access to some bonus stuff, like early views of stories long before anyone else! You support the site, and get to see early stuff no one else has! It’s a win-win!

Now, before getting into the post, I’m sure there was something else … Oh yes! This weekend saw more reviews rolling in for Axtara, Colony, and Jungle! Worked out pretty well, but I do have this to add: If Axtara keeps sailing off of shelves the way she’s been doing, she’s going to eclipse Colony before long!

All right, that’s all the news. So, let’s dive into today’s topic, fresh off of the request list of Topic List #17 asking about writing rules and when, how, or why to break them. Which is a tricky topic, but also an important one and well worth covering. So hit that jump, and let’s get started.

Okay, so where to start with a topic like this? Well, I think the best place to start is at the bare basics: There are rules of writing.

Keep them.

Got that? I’ll expand on it a little more. Learn the rules of writing. The rules of dialogue, pacing, character, all that jazz. Now keep it. Write a bunch. A lot, really. Keep those rules, back and front. Got it?

Okay, now break them.

Confused yet? Well, I don’t blame you. The problem with the rules of writing is that that most amateur writers have heard that the advice is “break the rules” and so jump in head first and start breaking them without ever learning to keep them in the first place. “Writing advice says to break the rules, so therefore there are no rules.” And the result?

Well, to put it lightly, the result is a mess. Unfollowable paragraph splits, dialogue tags that make no sense, complete disregard for arcs, pacing, or convention. Followed by complaints and the ever common response of “You just don’t get my vision!”

Worse, if this isn’t corrected, a young writer can start “setting” the habits they make in not having any of the “conventional rules” as their new rules, resulting in a mindset that can be extraordinarily hard to break, if not impossible. A writer who “sidesteps” all the rules without learning to write within them and then pours a decade of enforced effort on top of that mindset can be all but unteachable, forever producing works that are nigh-impossible to understand or read for anyone but those that share their unique “vision.”

And yes, I’ve had experience with some of these individuals personally. Someone once tried to hire me (for free, no less, so figure that one out) as a “tutor” to help a “visionary” individual they knew get their book out.

What they really wanted me to do, it gradually came out, was tell them what a “genius” they were for ignoring the “unneeded conventions” of the writing world, and confirm that all the other people who had tried to help them fix their “novel,” from teaches to other authors I suspect pulled into the same discussion, didn’t know what they were talking about. Except that they did, and I left this young man as upset as all those before me had by pointing out that rules were rules for a reason and what he had was less a work of purely incredible genius and more a mess of mishmashed plots, stories, and character that didn’t follow any conceivable path for a reader to dig into.

They couldn’t accept that, unfortunately. Years and and years of reinforcing their own disdain for “the rules” left them unable to accept yet another piece of advice to the contrary of their confidence, and that was that.

But it could have been avoided.

See, the rules of writing, from basics like “arcs” and “climax” to more nuts and bolts things like the length of a paragraph exist for a reason. They provide a consistent, understood framework on which to build a story. Just as if you asked a six year old to draw a “regular house” they would likely give you a cute drawing with four walls, a slanted roof, a door, and some windows, there are simply basic parts of a story that make it function with an audience.

These are the “rules” of writing. Dialogue attribution. Show VS Tell. Pacing. From the simple to the complex, rules give us a framework upon which to build our story, world, and characters in a way that the audience is familiar with and understands.

This then, is why the first lesson of the rules of writing is learn to keep them. And why so much of public education is angled with the concept of teaching the basic rules (though they don’t cover everything; for that there is higher): The basic elements of what makes a story and how one can convey it? They need to be laid down as a foundation.

Again, here is where problems can arise. Sometimes a student hears a rule but has trouble with it, and then decides “Well, writers say to break the rules anyways, so I’ll just break this one.”

No. Don’t do that. Don’t be that person. It’s not “breaking” a rule if you’ve never kept it to break (which, if you haven’t figured it out by now, is what we’re leading into). Yes, the ultimate goal is to break the rules … but after you know why they shouldn’t be broken.

In a way you can view the rules of writing a bit like the old sport-movie trope of a seemingly unconnected lessons taught by a wizened, growling old mentor. For those of you that don’t watch sports movies or similar flicks, this was a pretty common trope back in the day. The premise was a young wanna-be in whatever activity would be trying and failing at it, and then they’d find some old wizened hermit who would turn out to be a famous sage of whatever sport it was, and through some clever thinking or moxie, get said hermit to teach them.

Only to find that they don’t understand the hermit’s lessons at all. They seem infuriatingly basic, or even unrelated. Sometimes it may seem that they’re just doing mindless chores (aka free labor) for the hermit. Eventually, many of these protagonists will gripe and complain.

Only to discover, either in a pivotal moment or even just an explanation, that everything they’ve been doing has been building them up and preparing them for the real challenge. The hand motions let them do some high-level skill or whatever. It varies from story to story. But the point is that the protagonist had to spend a lot of time doing these basic motions and exercises in order to make their use of what they learned second nature, so that later they could go one step further and use it to their advantage.

So it is with the rules of writing. A writer needs to know them back to front, top to bottom. They need to be ingrained in their mind, something that has become second nature. Not just something they can describe or refer to, but can explain the why for.

And then, then, when the knowledge of the rules is perfectly understood and applied, then the writer can take a step further and begin to break those rules.

I’ll make an analogy here to the job of an architect. No architect starts out by building an evocative, wild building that breaks all the rules without knowing what those rules are. They don’t begin their career by making a building without walls. They start by building the conventional, familiar, standard structures we all know and have used (albeit with improvements) for centuries now. They sketch designs for houses and buildings like we all know. They make that knowledge second nature, learning what does what, how it’s used, and how people react to it.

Then, with that knowledge intact, they break a rule and do something like create a house without external walls. Or with nothing but windows. Or a stream flowing through it. They do it with full knowledge of what rule they’re breaking, how that will change what they create, what they must do to compensate for it, and what sort of reaction this will bring from the people looking to inhabit it.

So it is with writing. Authors learn the rules and keep them, understanding them so that when they choose to break them, they do so in a way that’s chosen for the effect on the audience. The author knows what should be, but makes a deliberate choice to move against the standard for the purpose of evoking a reaction or response from the audience through the use of breaking convention.

As explained above, this is why it’s so important to know and understand the rules of writing until they’re second nature, then make the conscious choice to break them.

With all this said, let me offer an example of a writing rule that is broken extremely often. For a brief moment, we’re going to talk about paragraphing.

Most of you know the rules of paragraphing. Aim for three to five sentences. Start a new paragraph for a new topic or a change in speaker.

Oh, and a paragraph should not be a single line.

Now, see what I did there? Despite that being a rule (your paragraph should be more than a single sentence, barring dialogue exceptions), it gets broken all the time. But it’s still a rule.

Why? Because the breaking of said rule draws attention to the singular line. This approach is often used for “wham lines” in text, like the reveal of the killer or a dead body.

Sands, I broke this just the other day while working on Starforge, and for that exact reason. Singling out a single sentence in the text makes it hit reader hard, and so used carefully can be a boon to affecting the mood and emotion of your audience.

But if I wasn’t familiar with the rules of paragraphs, I wouldn’t be able to nearly as effectively make use of knowing when to break the rule. I’d just be breaking it either in imitation or, at worst, whenever I felt like it, thinking that maybe the rules just didn’t apply.

They do. But there is power in knowing how and when to break them. That power can be leveraged … but only by knowing what keeping the rule would normalize things to.

So there you have it. As a quick recap, don’t be so eager to break the rules. Jump in and learn the rules, back to front. Make them second nature and understand them. Use them. Over and over and over again.

Then, once they’re second nature and you understand what breaking one of them will do, apply that to your writing. Look at the ability to break those rules as a special tool to step outside of the ordinary and make something unique, like a home with a stream running through it. You can’t do it every time. But pulling out a rule break for something specific can make your story a unique experience that will stick with the reader and pull them into your world, rather than out of it.

Which is really the best way to summarize this, I think.: The proper use of breaking the rules of writing will pull your readers deeper into the story. An improper use will push them out of it.

Knowing which is which is knowledge that can only come from long practice and experience.

So get out there and start working where you are. Learning rules, keeping them, or breaking them.

Good luck. Now get writing.

Don’t forget! Being a Better Writer, as well as Unusual Things, exists thanks to the aid of the following Patreon supporters:

Frenetic, Pajo, Anonymous Potato, Taylor, Jack of a Few Trades, Alamis, Seirsan, Grand General Luna, Miller, Hoopy McGee, Brown, Lightwind, Thomas, 22ndTemplar, and Piiec!

Special thanks to them for helping keep Unusual Things ad-free and the Being a Better Writer articles coming!

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